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Inweekly Turns 20: Part 2

2004-2009

Inweekly is celebrating our 20th anniversary this month. Rather than attempting to cram two decades of highlights into one week, we’ve decided to break it up and use all four July issues to cover the key moments from each five years of our history.

Last week, we covered our tumultuous first five years and our reporting on the fall of the powerful W.D. Childers. This week, we reprise the inside story of the Maritime Park referendum—the pivotal event that showed the world that Pensacola believed in itself and set the course for the area’s current renaissance. In the upcoming weeks, we will write about how Inweekly garnered its national reputation and our reconnection to our roots as a community advocate.

We hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane.

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The Real History of the Maritime Park
By Rick Outzen

In the months after Hurricane Ivan, Inweekly struggled to stay alive. The storm had destroyed my office, and we were booted from the Thiesen Building to make room for tenants willing to pay premium rates for the scarce office space downtown.

We set up shop in a closed yoga clothing shop on Navy Boulevard with a reduced staff and fought to make sure the hurricane recovery helped all sections of our community, not just a chosen few. The paper became an early supporter of the Community Maritime Park because we had envisioned a downtown ballpark, maritime museum and university campus months earlier (“Ballsy Plan,” 5/21/04).

Today, it’s difficult to imagine downtown Pensacola without the Vince J. Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park, and you might be hard-pressed to find many who would say that the park hasn’t been the catalyst for the renaissance of the city. However, the project’s approval wouldn’t have happened without the perseverance of Quint and Rishy Studer, a handful of business leaders, the Pensacola Young Professionals, the African American community and this weekly newspaper.

It’s important to remember the 18-month war that was fought to make the Maritime Park possible.

Revitalize Downtown
In January 2005, four months after Hurricane Ivan devastated the city of Pensacola, three men presented a waterfront development plan to the Pensacola City Council that began the long, arduous journey of revitalizing downtown Pensacola.

Pensacola was recovering from a nearly direct hit by Hurricane Ivan. Most homes had roof damage and were covered with blue tarps. The storm utterly destroyed some residences, and FEMA trailers were parked in front yards to provide temporary housing. The Emerald Coast Utility Authority’s Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant had overflowed, and raw sewage had backed into residences and businesses.

The area struggled to regain some sense of normalcy, but normal for downtown Pensacola was very different in 2005. No outdoor dining existed on Palafox because owners couldn’t predict when foul odors from the Main Street Sewage plant might drift in their direction. The only bars on Palafox were Jack & Ron’s, Intermission and New York Nick’s. Even fewer restaurants existed. Other than jewelers and art galleries, hardly any retail shops were on the town’s main drag. The street was deserted on weekends.

Across from Pensacola City Hall sat the so-called Trillium property, a former fuel terminal on Pensacola Bay that had sat vacant for over a decade. The 27.5-acre parcel was overgrown with weeds and infested with cat-sized rats.

The city had purchased the property in 2000 for $3.63 million. Two years later, the city council approved a $40 million plan for the site that included a 16-acre public park and an $18 million auditorium to replace the ancient Bayfront Auditorium. That vote was overturned in March 2003 by a referendum led by Councilman Marty Donovan and businessman Charles Fairchild.

After Hurricane Ivan struck, Mayor John Fogg and City Manager Tom Bonfield met with the community leaders to discuss how to rebuild the city and revitalize the local economy. The city of Homestead, which had faced a similar dilemma when Hurricane Andrew leveled it in 1992, suggested a large public project could be a catalyst.

Quint Studer, co-owner of the city’s baseball team, had been looking for sites to build a baseball stadium for the Pensacola Pelicans. Jack Fetterman, a retired admiral and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, had been pushing for a maritime museum and was looking at the Port of Pensacola as a possible location. Meanwhile, Dr. John Cavanaugh, the president of the University of West Florida, wanted to build a stronger presence in downtown Pensacola.

Mort O’Sullivan, the managing partner of a local CPA firm, helped the city bring all three men together to look at the possibility of building their projects on the Trillium property. He later described the meeting for Inweekly (“The Story Behind Pensacola’s Most Historic Vote,” 11/9/06), “I’ll never forget Admiral Fetterman, when in the spirit of a Texas Hold ’em poker game, pushed his papers and notes into the middle of the table and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m all in.’”

A project team of Dick Appleyard (public relations), Bob Hart (legal counsel), Miller Caldwell (architect) and O’Sullivan (financial adviser) was assembled to begin pitching the proposal to the city council.

“I knew it was not viable for 100 percent of our citizens to be in favor of the project,” O’Sullivan said. “But I knew we couldn’t be frozen by fear. It was time for me to take a stand on something I believed in for the good of the community.”

The plan the group developed was ambitious and proposed construction of a community maritime park that would have a public park, multi-use stadium, maritime museum, conference center, retail and commercial spaces.

The price tag was steep $70.7 million plan, but $29.1 million would come from the private sector. Quint and Rishy Studer committed $11.2 million, including $2.2 million in cash and an additional $9 million in cash and lease commitments, to the project. Fetterman pledged to raise $12.8 million for the maritime museum and research facility. Retail and commercial leases were expected to yield another $5 million.

The public portion, $41.6 million, would come from a combination of refinancing city bond issues, state grants and additional tax revenue generated within the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Pensacola Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs voiced his support for the maritime park because it blended the area’s Naval heritage, waterfront, sports and entrepreneurial ideas.

“I wish these three (pointing to Studer, Fetterman and Cavanaugh) were here 20 years ago,” Whibbs said. “The best is yet to come.”

The Pensacola City Council approved the conceptual plan, 8-2, and asked for more public input to tweak it. That should have been the end of the story, but unfortunately, this is Pensacola.

Save Our City Pushes Back
Studer met in February 2005 with nationally-known urban planner Ray Gindroz in Pittsburgh to find out what he thought of the project. Gindroz later was hired by Studer for $200,000 to lead meetings to get public input on the plans during a nearly three-month process.

“We had meetings with all the city council members, and they all went really well, except the one with Mr. Donovan,” Studer recalled. “I asked (Gindroz) if it was a good idea, and he said it was exactly what progressive cities were doing around the country.”

Still, after public input and getting city approval in March 2006—about 14 months after first being proposed—Save Our City chairman Charlie Fairchild led a petition drive to let voters decide the issue as he had done in 2003.

Fairchild and Save Our City rented office space and collected signatures at the recycle bins on Summit Boulevard, Cordova Mall and the Barnes Supermarket. Their door-to-door campaign focused on the predominantly white neighborhoods east of Ninth Avenue (“Buzz: Don’t Ask,” 4/6/06). By the end of May, the group had enough signatures to get a city-wide referendum on the September 2006 ballot.

Unfortunately, two of the project’s most prominent supporters, Fetterman and Whibbs, would die before seeing the voters approve the park. After months of failing health, Fetterman passed away in his home on March 24, 2006. Whibbs died two months later of a heart attack in his kitchen while he was leaving to give a speech to rally supporters for the park.

In the speech that was later published on Rick’s Blog, Whibbs expressed his belief that the community maritime park was “the best and only solution to the renaissance of downtown Pensacola.”

Meanwhile, the Pensacola Young Professionals were formed with the help of the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce and Inweekly (“Young Professionals: Shaping the Future,” 3/9/06). Pensacola Chamber CEO Evon Emerson said at the time, “We both recognized that the status quo had to change. We knew that a partnership between the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Independent News could serve as a catalyst.”

The group, led by its first president, John Hosman, announced its mission—“To strive to develop the bay area as a thriving and dynamic place to live and work, making our fellow young professionals and the community as a whole aware of issues shaping the area through proactive civic, social and professional involvement.”

The PYP membership voted to make the maritime park one of its five top issues, along with better-paying jobs, improving public education, relocation of the Main Street Sewage plant and affordable housing for first-time homebuyers.

The other difference maker was Rick’s Blog, which gave our newspaper a vehicle to challenge the many half-truths and misleading statements made by Save Our City to attack the Studers and defeat the park.

Alternative weeklies have begun using blogs to crossover into daily news by posting news as it happened and sometimes faster than the daily newspaper and local television stations.

“This is a way for weeklies to become dailies,” Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, told us in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention held in June 2006 (“Blog, Blog, Blog,” 7/13/06). “It pushes the boundaries of interactivity. You have to have fresh content constantly.”

With Councilman Donovan and Save Our City having almost daily exposure on WCOA’s “Pensacola Speaks with Luke McCoy,” the area’s top afternoon drive time radio call-in show, the blog, ricksblog.biz, served as a counter to McCoy’s attacks.

Ali vs. Foreman
Studer told Inweekly that he briefly considered whether or not to continue pushing for the project when his wife, Rishy, questioned him about it during breakfast one day.

“We had hit a wall, and she was looking at me and asking, ‘Is this really worth it?’” he said. “It was one of those defining moments like God is or God isn’t. People were saying some pretty hurtful things. But I looked at her and said, ‘Yeah, it is worth it.’ The last four months, I felt really strong.”

Studer, Sullivan and other park proponents told us the hardest part of the summer battle was following the advice of campaign advisers to wait until the final three weeks to fight back against misinformation put out by Save Our City.

“It was a little like the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight,” Studer said. “We let them throw everything at us during the petition drive and after that until the last three weeks. When we took a poll and it still showed us ahead, we knew we were in good shape.”

Polls showed voters favored the park by four percentage points. The lead meant park proponents also had overcome what pollsters discovered was about a 40 percent rate of voters in Pensacola that would vote against any project no matter what. Typically, cities’ negative voters hover around 20 percent.

Still, it was a tough call to run the Chuck & Donno cartoons and TV ads that Appleyard developed that poked fun at Save Our City members as cranky old men in favor of doing nothing, O’Sullivan said. However, the ads turned out to be popular.

As part of Friends of the Waterfront Park’s campaign strategy, park supporters decided to go against campaign advisers and courted support among young and minority voters. Jeff DeWeese, Juanita Scott, Lumon May and Buzz and Debbie Ritchie coordinated door-to-door canvassing with the help of PYP.

DeWeese told Inweekly that Friends of the Waterfront Park volunteers hit every house where citizens voted in most of the past elections. Every yes, no and undecided vote was mapped out by address. He also helped map every house that signed a Save Our City petition. In the seven city districts, park supporters found 3,198 residences in favor of the plan and 2,320 against, which means 58 percent were in support of the Community Maritime Park.

“We had a real good feeling for who was going to the polls,” said DeWeese.

On Election Day, Waterfront Park poll watchers were stationed at all of the city’s precincts and periodically called campaign headquarters to report who had voted. A phone bank of six people then called voters, who said they approved of the project but hadn’t voted, to urge them to go to the polls.

“We had some people call us back and say we could stop calling them; they had made it to the polls,” DeWeese remembered, laughing.

Studer refused to celebrate until all but two of the city precincts had reported their results on election night and the lead looked insurmountable. Sitting in O’Sullivan’s downtown office a block away from the waterfront site, he finally agreed to walk to the victory party in full swing at Seville Quarter. He had prepared remarks in case voters turned down the proposal but hadn’t prepared a victory speech.

“He was just a basket case. He refused to get joyous or angry,” O’Sullivan recalled. “We were on the internet and the phone constantly getting updates. Finally, I told him, ‘C’mon, we got to go.’ We got over to Seville, and he didn’t want the limelight. We had our anxious moments, but we were pretty happy by then.”

Studer later told Inweekly that despite barbs from Save Our City members who opposed the park, such as calling the park “Studerville,” he believed in the development.

“I would have been disappointed if the project lost,” he said. “But I knew I could wake up the next day knowing I just wanted to make Pensacola a better place to live. We weren’t trying to stop something. We were trying to build something. But I had no idea at the beginning what that would encompass in time, energy and money.”

In the end, 9,842 approved the park (56 percent), and 7,701 voted no. Of 37,555 eligible voters, 17,500 cast ballots, a 46.6 percent turnout.

Studer said the most significant turning point during the last 10 days of the election was a meeting with more than two dozen local black ministers.

“That was really exciting,” he said. “They had always been supportive, but then they were really pushing it forward.”

The margin of victory among majority black precincts, which made up 23 percent of the vote, was 1,112 votes. The margin of victory among majority white precincts, which accounted for 77 percent of the vote, was 1,045 votes.

“When you look back, what do you see as the defining moments in Pensacola’s history?” Studer said in an interview with our newspaper after the vote. “In Charleston, they’ll tell you it was the development of its waterfront park. In Montgomery, they say it’s when they put a ballpark in on the river. We don’t have that one defining moment.”

He grinned and added, “But years from now, I believe people in our community will say this was the defining moment in the history of Pensacola.”

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Game Changers
Important Issues: 2004-2009

“Gotcha! Crimefighters’ New Toy,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 2/3/05: We obtained a videotape that showed a Pensacola Police Department officer pointing a taser gun at the forehead of a detainee when he refused to take a breathalyzer. PPD officers then took the man to an adjoining cell where he begged for mercy while he’s shocked with 50,000 volts from the stun gun.

“The Death of Robert Boggon,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 10/13/05: “Pumpkin, they are going to kill me,” Robert Boggon told his niece, who worked at the Escambia County Jail. Thus began the story of Boggon’s death in the Escambia County Jail. Our reporting put our newspaper at odds with the powerful Sheriff Ron McNesby, who had to change his tune after jail deaths began to pile up.

“Inside the Sex Trade,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 4/6/06: A key witness in the bust of escort services in the region came forward to our newspaper. “Jennifer,” whose real name was withheld for her protection, said unwitting sex workers were sent by their agencies to men known for abuse for extra cash.

“Left Behind series-Part 1: Healthcare,” 8/3/06; “Part 2: Housing,” 8/10/06; “Part 3: Education,” 8/17/06-all by Duwayne Escobedo: We focused on poverty for three weeks, showing just how far the Pensacola area’s poor were being left behind when it came to vital issues, such as healthcare, housing and education.

“Who’s the Man,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 6/14/07: The very first Power List was created on a cocktail napkin at the Atlas Oyster Bar. Who knew it would become one of our most popular annual issues? The original top five were, 1) Fred Levin, 2) Judge Lacey Collier, 3) Ted Ciano, 4) Jim Reeves and 5) Lewis Bear, Jr.

“ChaChing!” by Duwayne Escobedo, 8/8/07: It took weeks, but we finally got the salaries of every county employee and posted the database on our website with this warning—“If you’re feeling overworked and underpaid, you may want to stop reading this right here.” Our server locked up as thousands wanted to see who was making what.

“Bubbas on Patrol,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 3/6/08: Sheriff McNesby deputized the county’s code enforcement officers, and it didn’t go well. Federal civil lawsuits were filed alleging wrongful conduct that violated Escambia County business owners’ and citizens’ constitutional rights.

“Rising Stars,” by Inweekly staff, 2/8/08: We created our first-ever Rising Stars issue, selecting 35 worthy young leaders from 109 nominations. The class included future state representative and Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram and future city councilwoman and Pensacola MESS Hall founder Megan Pratt.

“April Fool’s,” by Walker Holmes, 3/26/08: We had been publishing an April Fool’s issue for years, but the 2008 version actually came true. We announced the UWF Board of Trustees had approved football and that the Argonauts would field a team in 2010. The first game would be at the University of Alabama, and the first home game would be at the Community Maritime Park versus Notre Dame. The UWF athletic department was flooded with calls for tickets.

“I Shot the Sheriff,” by Rick Outzen, 9/4/08: Few believed that David Morgan would beat Sheriff Ron McNesby in the 2008 GOP primary. McNesby had raised $229,381 to Morgan’s $59,008. The incumbent had the endorsements of the News Journal and WCOA’s Luke McCoy. Morgan had hardworking volunteers, BLAB TV and Inweekly. Morgan beat McNesby by 14 percentage points

“Ole Miss Wins Debate,” by Rick Outzen, 10/1/08: We were there for the historic moment for the nation, the state of Mississippi and the University of Mississippi when John McCain and Barack Obama took the stage for their first presidential debate. We even broadcasted our “IN Your Head” radio from the Ole Miss Student Union in a room next to Sean Hannity.

“How Do You Mend A Broken Mind?,” by Sean Boone, 4/12/09: The Escambia County Jail had become the county’s largest mental healthcare facilities. Sheriff David Morgan unsuccessfully tried to get a mental health court established.